Japan is on the verge of being without nuclear power again with the scheduled shutdown of Kansai Electric Power Co.'s No. 4 reactor at the Oi power plant for a regular safety inspection.
With the facility set to go offline late on Sept. 15, all 50 nuclear reactors in Japan will be out of operation.
Given that this will be the first time in 14 months that Japan is fully without nuclear power, questions inevitably are being raised about the future of nuclear energy in this country.
However, the Abe administration has made clear it will allow reactors to resume operations as long as they pass safety inspections. The Nuclear Regulation Authority is now in the process of appraising 12 reactors at six nuclear plants to determine if they meet new stringent standards put in place after the 2011 Fukushima disaster that forced all reactors to shut down in Japan.
The uncertainty about the future of nuclear energy stems mainly from the fact the Abe administration has yet to offer a clear picture of the extent to which Japan will depend on this form of power generation in years to come.
What it has done is to move away from the goal set by the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led government to stop operations at all nuclear plants by the 2030s.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also pitched Japan's nuclear energy technology during trips abroad and helped a consortium of Japanese companies win an order for a 2 trillion yen ($20 billion) contract to build a nuclear facility in Turkey.
At the same time, after Tokyo was awarded the right to host the 2020 Summer Olympics at an International Olympic Committee meeting held in Buenos Aires, Abe said at a news conference: "We will reduce the ratio of electric power generated by nuclear energy. Over about three years, we will make every effort to accelerate the spread of renewable energy sources and promote energy conservation."
But before the government can set a goal for the dependence on nuclear energy, it will first have to secure alternative energy sources. It won't be able to do that until at least next year.
The administration faces an even more immediate challenge: the leakage of radiation-contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
After the reactor meltdowns in Fukushima, the electric power industry said that unless other nuclear plants were put back in operation it would be unable to provide the electricity needed, especially during the summer.
The unprecedented nature of the nuclear disaster drove home to households and companies the need to conserve energy. Even though this past summer saw record high temperatures, no blackouts occurred due to an electricity shortage.
As a result, electric power companies were forced to shift the focus of their arguments for resuming operations at nuclear plants. The utilities are now pointing to increases in electricity fees to cover the increased use of thermal power plants to argue that nuclear plants are needed to reduce the cost burden on households.
The higher fuel costs brought about by the shift to thermal plants led six electric power companies to raise rates. Tokyo Electric Power Co. raised the standard monthly rate for households to above 8,000 yen in September, a 30-percent increase from the level before the Fukushima disaster.
Higher fuel costs caused eight of the 10 utilities to record a total net loss of 1.6 trillion yen in fiscal 2012.
Even as electric power companies call for the resumption of operations at nuclear plants to alleviate the burden on households, heightened public concern about nuclear safety coupled with strong opposition to nuclear power generation will make it more difficult to authorize a return to the way things were before the disaster.
Of the 12 reactors for which operators have applied for inspections as a first hurdle to resuming operations, eight have proceeded fairly smoothly in the appraisal process. The evaluation for the No. 3 reactor at the Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture could be completed as early as this winter, which might make it the first to resume operations.
However, even if the reactor does pass the evaluation process, the electric power company will still have to gain the consent of the municipalities that host the plant.
In July, TEPCO tried to submit applications for inspections at the No. 6 and 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture. However, Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida criticized the rush to resume operations. He also was critical of the new safety standards established by the Nuclear Regulation Authority on grounds the screening was meaningless in the absence of a thorough analysis and evaluation of what caused the Fukushima disaster.
After the 2011 accident, the central government expanded the area for disaster management measures to a radius of 30 kilometers from any single nuclear plant. That means there are now more municipal governments that fall within that radius from which consent has to be gained by utilities before they can resume operations at nuclear plants.
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